Ethics of Criticism in the Church

Brigham Young offered this instruction in the spring of 1844:

If a man preaches anything in error, pray to God that no man may remember it any more. No Elder will correct another in public before unbelievers unless he has the sinking principle. I call all the Elders together to witness that I always use charity, for it covers a multitude of sins. Let us obey the proclamation of Joseph Smith concerning the Elders going forth into the vineyard- to build up the Temple- get their endowments

The “sinking principle” was explained by Brigham as follows:

the speech and conduct of Elders, one towards another — one Elder will speak evil of another and when you undertake to trample on another you will sink yourself. [such] a man has [the] sinking principle [1]

Brigham’s advice about criticism is pretty much a deeply embedded principle in the modern Church.[2] But how far does it go, or, how far should it go? When a person in a responsible position (stake president) has reliable information to the effect that another officer (bishop) is in some form of error (say, this bishop displays overtly lustful attitudes toward certain members of his congregation – not directly, but in conversion with a counselor who reports these repeated conversations). The SP speaks to the bishop, but the behavior continues and no further action is taken.

When the Mormon Doctrine snafu took place, one of the major concerns over the first edition was the effect a public Church rejection of the volume might have on its author’s credibility and ability to function (that was clearly a higher priority than whatever doctrinal speculations or errors were in the book). It’s pretty clear that the bar for public criticism let alone discipline of general Church officers is a high one.[3] But one guesses that this is not exclusively about the individuals involved. How important is it to the health of the Church that the foibles of its members or more especially its leaders remain private or at least uncelebrated? And where is the threshold for violation of that social compact?

I won’t comment on the recent storm over President Boyd K. Packer’s remarks and the subsequent changes in those remarks except to say it wasn’t the first time such things have happened.

Antebellum American Protestant religious organs show that public criticism of preachers over doctrine (the “wrong” atonement theory, say) was not unknown by any stretch but that is less common now. Brigham Young himself publicly reigned in Orson Pratt over doctrinal differences. The threshold for such action may be different now however.[4] On the other hand, the correlation movement and its corollaries control some speech seemingly at even the highest levels. If indeed the bar is higher for public criticism in the Church, does this effect the nature of private correction? I think it might.[5]

[1] General Church Minute file, 9 April 1844, holograph, Thomas Bullock. CHL.

[2] Public criticism of allies is nearly always regarded as uncouth to a point. But the “Reagan dictum” appears in any number of religious contexts, not just Mormonism. Think Roman Catholic leadership treatment of pedophile priests.

[3] Consider for example the excommunication of Elder Richard R. Lyman for adultery.

[4] See Spencer W. Kimball’s rejection of Brigham Young’s ideas.

[5] Joseph Smith was not shy about correcting colleagues in public on occasion.


  1. A very thoughtful and timely article. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Great post. Certainly times have changed, but I’m not sure how much. It wasn’t that long ago when ETB and BHR contradicted each other in public.

    I’m not sure if it would affect private correction, except make them more frequent. I don’t see someone sharing lustful thoughts somewhat privately as the same thing as someone spouting off something that need correction at the pulpit. There is also a difference in countering what a speaker said (which I’ve seen happen on multiple occasions), and condemning the speaker. But if it comes to doctrine (whatever that is), as SWK mentions in the linked talk–it needs public clarification, no?

  3. mmiles, no doubt there can be differences in how things are handled on this score. In the bishop case, since the behavior didn’t stop, I think it had a public effect on the ward be the counselors had loyalty problems (and disengaged – their problem perhaps, but it didn’t need to happen).

  4. Mark B. says:

    I thought Brigham Young reigned in Utah.

  5. Micahel says:

    Galatians 2:11-21 records a fairly strong public rebuke of Peter by Paul. Peter seems to have taken Pauls council to heart by the time they meet at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 where they seem to be getting along well (I assume acts 15 takes place after the events recorded in galatians 2) It would be interesting to have more of the details of this event.

  6. Mark B., that was still April conference, but JS wasn’t there at the time I think. So yeah, BY is not Church President at the time.

  7. Interesting. My perception is that JS was similarly emphatic about not finding fault (going back to the 12 in Kirtland through the Nauvoo Female Relief Society, etc.) and similarly willing on occasion to find fabulous fault.

  8. J: exactly.

  9. Mark B., I apologize. I couldn’t resist.

  10. WVS,
    Do you think that, had the Church leaders been able to perfectly foresee how thoroughly Mormon Doctrine would infiltrate the minds and hearts of LDS people around the world, they would have come to a different conclusion about how to react?

  11. Perhaps they had a longer view of the matter. Popular tomes of the past haven’t seen lasting explicit influence. Few people quote Pratt’s Key to the Science of Theology and even Talmage is drifting out of use. In spite of the typical emphasis on the great value of doctrine, it’s uniformity that counts. And both pale in the face of sacramental soteriology.

  12. “How important is it to the health of the Church that the foibles of its members or more especially its leaders remain private or at least uncelebrated? And where is the threshold for violation of that social compact?”

    This is obviously a post about BYU publicly suspending Brandon Davies instead of quietly counseling him, right?

  13. You got it, Kyle. And look where that ended. ;)

  14. it’s uniformity that counts. And both pale in the face of sacramental soteriology.

    WVS, I wonder if you’re giving uniformity its due.

    In the next life, certainly soteriology trumps (and if I understand LDS soteriology correctly, I will indeed have another chance to be saved after I die).

    In this mortal life, however, is it not the very benefits of uniformity, social support, and family focus that provide the greater inducement to stay active? A Buddhist monk without wife, children, gregarious nature, and love of potlucks would need a powerful personal revelation to come to believe in the Restored Gospel, whereas a single mother fresh out of an abusive relationship and looking for a nurturing husband might happily make do with borrowed testimony.

  15. I’ve always thought acceptance of an idea or doctrine demanded thoughtful and thorough debate. Clearly the Brethren have the chance to do that amongst themselves as they vigorously discuss issues like homosexuality or evolution. But when lay members of the church are presented with a doctrinal statement, the debate is supposed to be laid to rest and those concepts become Unquestionable Talking Points of Mormon Doctrine.

    This has never felt right to me and when I ask the hard questions about some issues, people sometimes look at me like I’m giving them a doctrinal beat down. Thankfully, I live in a ward where my friends in Elders Quorum generally tolerate my inane questioning of doctrinal issues. Either they are sick of it and want me to just shut already, or they don’t have the guts to call me out when I’m way off target.

    I think they assigned me to teach the teenagers so I won’t disrupt Gospel Doctrine by calling out the unquestioned Talking Points of Mormon Doctrine.

  16. Assuming that this is a post about Davies’ suspension. If not, I apologize for killing a thread, but even someone like me who left BYU *before* I could get kicked out for honor code violations, I stand with the university. It’s BYU. A church subsidized by tithing funds. You know what the gig is when you sign up. I knew it, and I didn’t like it, *so I left.* One of my non-mormon friends is on the sports faculty at BYU. She would like to drink an occasional beer, but doesn’t, because she knows that she has a contract to keep the honor code.

    Davies knocked up a girl. There should be some heavy accountability for that, regardless what you think about the honer code.

  17. And I’m not sure what the “honer code” is … but I’m sure it is way cooler than the the “honor code.”

  18. It isn’t about criticism or silence — rather, the point that Joseph Smith and others were trying to teach is the importance of sustaining, and building up — that’s what the Savior did during his lifetime. Let each man or woman stand in his or her own place, and magnify his or her own calling, and let each help everyone else.

    It is not good to be quick to point out every bump or failing of our brothers and sisters in the Church, or those called as leaders in the Church. It makes for good reading in the bloggernacle, but it doesn’t help sanctify one’s soul.

  19. 40 to 50 years ago, excommunications were announced over the pulpit in Sacrament meeting. Then it became priesthood meeting, and now it is never mentioned in public unless there is an issue with the high public profile of the individual, as in a felony conviction, or if someone is perceived as a threat to the members, such as a sexual predator.

    The good news is that in a minor offense, the authority or reputation of the individual, using BRM and Mormon Doctrine as an example, are not eroded. The bad news is that, using the same example, we sometimes allow the perpetuation of a problem. Does the good that Elder McConkie performed as a general authority, scriptural scholar, and Apostle outweigh the false authoritative status that many in the church gave to some of the more questionable topics in MD? I would like to think so, but it is a tough question. And does this practice enhance the idea that our leaders at all levels are infallible, and make it more difficult for those who struggle with problems?

  20. Mark Brown says:

    It is not good to be quick to point out every bump or failing of our brothers and sisters in the Church, or those called as leaders…

    I agree with this, ji. But in order to exercise that sort of charity, we first need to acknowledge that the failings exist. Our task is to sustain and strengthen, and in order to do that we need to clearly see where the weak spots are, not pretend that they don’t exist.

    It has been on my mind lately; what do you do when your bishop goes rogue and starts making up his own temple recommend questions? He is acting in direct contravention of the explicit instructions from the First Presidency, that priesthood leaders should ask the questions as written. The bishop is engaging in a form of apostasy. His actions say that he knows better than the church leaders. So what should a member do? Nobody is calling for a public shaming, but members ought to be able to have a private conversation with the bishop and voice their concerns.

  21. My sincerest apologies for hijacking this post. It was too early in the morning for me to realize its scholarly nature. If you could be so kind as to delete my comments, I would super appreciate it? I didn’t mean to sound like a Trib Comment Troll. Thanks!

  22. (20) You’ve raised a tough question. How can a member of the church address another member or leader who is not following the church policies or doctrine without being critical? In my experience, even taking a moment in a meeting to remind others of church policy can be seen as an attack on, or at least a lack of respect for, local leaders. Unless all the parties involved are humble there will probably be trouble and hard feelings.

  23. Cotton Floozy, you didn’t start it, Kyle did. We should publicly shame him.

  24. Thanks, WVS. Some days I’m just not on my A game. Let’s just pretend that my comments belong to the Davies Twitter post, k? And that evil technology bungled my efforts.

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